Aspen’s global connection softens
ASPEN, Colorado ” Ian Purchas and his ilk are high on the Aspen Skiing Co.’s “most wanted” list this season.
He’s wanted not for any wrongdoing, but rather because he delivered the kind of customers likely to be in short supply in these tough economic times. Purchas brought 160 people to Aspen Jan. 7-14 for an Australian Accountants and Lawyers Conference.
“Aspen is the premiere resort in the world,” Purchas said. And he’s learned through experience that timing is everything for a visit, so he comes right after the busy holiday period. “There are no lift lines. The snow is good. You can get into the restaurants.”
It also works well because many Aussies are on their summer break.
Purchas has organized the professional conference for 10 years, starting in Aspen, then going to Whistler-Blackcomb for six years, Steamboat for a year and back to Aspen the last two. He hasn’t formalized plans yet for 2010.
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Aspen has more cache with his target audience because so many people know the resort’s name, he said. The 160 participants was down from 240 coming to Aspen the prior season. Purchas said he was still pleased, considering the Aussie dollar plummeted 30 percent against the U.S. dollar last summer while he was arranging the trip. The rising cost of travel for Australians forced many participants to drop out, he said.
Australia has been the Skico’s top overseas market for several seasons. Last year, international travelers overall accounted for about 23 percent of Skico’s destination business, according to Skico Senior Vice President David Perry. A destination visitor is classified as a person who stays for an overnight trip.
International business has softened this season, but it’s not apparent yet how severe the drop will be.
“Australia in particular is going to be hard hit,” Perry said, citing the drastic change in the currency rates. In mid-January, Australian business was down 20 percent, he added.
There also is “definite softness” in business from the United Kingdom, traditionally the second leading international market for Aspen/Snowmass, Perry said. On the other hand, visits from Germany, Brazil and Mexico don’t appear to be as hard hit.
Ralf Garrison, director of the Mountain Travel Research Program, which helps 15 major mountain resorts in western North America monitor business trends, said travel destinations of all types are facing the same problem right now. Cruises, Las Vegas and ski resorts are all suffering the “epicenter effect” ” “people are staying closer to home and traveling closer to home,” he said.
In the ski industry, that means some New England resorts are doing well because they have a large metropolitan population base to pull from. In Colorado, resorts that rely on day skiers from the Front Range are dealing best with the tough economic times.
The epicenter effect also struck the industry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Travel destinations that continued market efforts overseas, even though it wasn’t going to pay immediate dividends, capitalized when people started traveling again a year or so later.
“Aspen was one of those,” Garrison said.
That on-going effort to market overseas and build relationships with tour operators builds loyalty. Aspen has had name recognition working in its favor for six decades. Adding marketing to the cache makes it a more powerful “destination magnet,” Garrison said.
“Loyalty turns out to be a pretty important piece of equity when times get tough,” Garrison said. “(Aspen) is holding the line better, anecdotally, than the rest of the ski industry.”
Genevieve Lawson, a skier from the United Kingdom, said it was her impression that many people are still traveling to the U.S. for ski trips despite the poor exchange rate. They booked ski holidays well in advance and stuck with them.
“It’s just that their spending money will go less far,” she wrote by e-mail.
Lawson is returning to Aspen this month as a representative of a major ski club. She skis and socializes with Brits to try to get them to join the club.
Garrison said resorts covet international guests because they typically stay for seven to 10 days and pay full lodging rates.
Those benefits are pronounced this year because so many U.S. travelers are shopping for bargains. U.S. travelers aren’t booking far in advance. Instead, they are waiting until closer to the time they want to travel, and staying fewer days than in the past.
Garrison warned that the decline in international skier visits this winter may look even more drastic because last ski season set a record.
Perry said Skico’s international business could hold steady at 23 percent of destination business even with a decline in foreign travelers. Business overall is expected to drop, so international business might maintain its percentage.
Despite the ongoing economic uncertainty, Purchas said Aspen will be in the running for his business in 2010, as will Vail. The Aussies who attended his conference found Aspenites to be friendly, and officials at The Gant and Skico “treat us well,” he said.
“The impression I get is Aspen works harder to get the group than Vail does,” Purchas added.